Our Opinion: Labor Day evolves from early roots to today’s challenges

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Editor’s Note: This editorial was first published in The Wilson Times in September 2014.

The industrialization of America in the late 19th century gave rise to many things. We became a giant economic powerhouse. More consumer goods were made available to all. Some even made fortunes for themselves.

Yes, there were also downsides. Unquestionably, many workers had been taken advantage of by their employers. That led to the formation of worker associations — labor unions — in order to protect the laborers.

The first Labor Days weren’t national holidays. They were local events. Workers voluntarily took a day off from work to march in parades.

It wasn’t until 1894 that President Grover Cleveland agreed to a federal holiday honoring workers. Some historians would say the president wasn’t being terribly altruistic at the time. His heavy hand in dealing with a railroad strike earlier in the year may have led to his decision to calm the masses by showing he really did support the working person.

Through much of the 20th century, Labor Day was taken as a serious celebration of the working men and women of the country. For some, it still is.

For others, the day has taken on a different meaning. It’s the unofficial end of summer, although technically autumn doesn’t begin for a few weeks. It used to be the official demarcation of when one had to stop wearing white, although we’re not sure that’s still a rule.

It also used to be the day before the new school year began. That has long gone by the wayside in much of the nation, including here in Wilson County.

So just what does Labor Day mean? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

But what does Labor Day mean to us today? Is it just a day off of work for some? A time for a picnic or family trip?

More than 10 percent of the residents of Wilson County are considered unemployed as of July 2014. (Wilson’s jobless rate is now 6.8 percent, the third-highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties.) And that figure doesn’t include another segment of our neighbors who have jobs but are not considered full-time employees — the underemployed.

Labor Day has a totally different meaning for these members of our community. They may find the holiday rather ironic. Most of them would probably prefer a decent job with decent pay over a holiday.

Perhaps what we all should be doing this Labor Day holiday is to take time to discern how we can help Wilson’s economy grow and thrive. What more can we all do to support our local businesses and workers? A parade might be nice, but it doesn’t improve the situation of many of our less fortunate residents.

Don’t take us wrong. We want you to have a great day today. Enjoy the holiday. Be thankful. But at the same time, don’t forget those without jobs.